Tête-à-tête with the bird brains

Matthew Reisz on the neurologists probing the social side of clever corvids and teenage dreamers

December 23, 2010

With the party season in full swing, the British Neuroscience Association has shone light on the workings of the "social brain" via the work of leading researchers in the field.

Anyone who thinks only primates have the brain power to manage complex social lives should think again, participants heard at a briefing last week in London.

"It is something of an evolutionary accident that we have ended up with a planet of the apes rather than a planet of the corvids," said Nicola Clayton, professor of comparative cognition at the University of Cambridge.

"Birds - and specifically crows and parrots - are just as intelligent as apes and, in some respects, as intelligent as two-year-old children. It is time we started talking about brain birds and not bird brains."

Professor Clayton teaches tango and knows how the experience of synchronised dancing helps to bind human couples. Monogamous crows, whose partnerships can last 40 years, do something similar when they repeatedly mirror each other's movements as a way of bonding.

Another participant in the British Neuroscience Association event, Ben Seymour, honorary research Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, believes that much of our decision-making is social.

He and his colleagues have created a "mini-NHS" in their lab and ask volunteers about "health decisions" such as how much they would be willing to pay to avoid a mild burn on their arm.

In contrast with our knowledge of the price of beer or sandwiches, he said, we do not have an intuitive sense of what such things are worth and tend to be heavily influenced by what others say.

The results of his research challenge the central assumptions of a more marketised health service built around the mantra of "patient choice", Dr Seymour suggested.

Chris Melhuish, director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of Bristol, argued that decision-making in social contexts depends crucially on emotion.

If we want to create "sociable robots" that can interact safely and usefully with human beings, we need to build in the insights of neuroscience and develop "new kinds of robotic bodies, new ways of controlling them and new artificial minds", Professor Melhuish said.

And what about that bizarre group of people who seem suddenly to lose all social skills: teenagers?

We now know that our brains continue to develop well beyond the age of 18, said Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London.

But puberty undoubtedly brings a drop in both educational attainment and facial recognition skills that cannot be explained solely by the move from primary to secondary school.

Taking this seriously could have major implications for educational policy, Professor Blakemore argued.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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